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Getting inside the reader’s head

One of the goals of fiction is to evoke a feeling, atmosphere and understanding–in the reader. As a writer, you have things you want to convey; but to accomplish this with impact you need the reader’s participation.

It’s not merely a matter of the beauty of your prose and how clearly you execute your insights on characterization. In fact, it may be that saying a bit less–exiting that paragraph before you ruin it with a summing up–will give your reader the desired chill or flash of insight. It’s a delicate balance writers must master: how much to make explicit, and how much to leave out.

Think of it as a dance. In the dance of fiction, the author has the lead, but that doesn’t mean we control everything. Readers have their own moves, their own innate kinesthetics that will interplay with those of their partner. You. In fiction, the writer’s tools actually include the imagination and experience of the reader. Because readers inevitably bring these factors into play, writers enter into a partnership with them and use implication to excite the reader’s imagination. Even in the most commercial of stories, this partnership is always in play.


We imply in stories using a variety of devices. You already use them: things like subtext, metaphor and symbolism. Still, it is often hard to decide what to make explicit and what to infer at the scene and line level. Those choices are unteachable, and are largely a product of your style and voice. However, it can help us simply to be aware that some things are better left unsummarized. With attention to the writer/reader partnership, you will get better at this.

I have just finished reading the wonderful book, The Good German, by Joseph Kanon. In this story, an American journalist attached to the army returns to his old haunt, Berlin, in 1945 as the Allied armies are settling into occupation. The city is in ruins. The rubble of Berlin is a metaphorical setting for the losses of an old love affair and the deterioration of the noble cause of World War Two. Nowhere is it made explicit that ruined buildings and people picking through debris looking for food mean something else, something larger and more thematic. Had Kanon done so, it would have spoiled my enjoyment of this mysterious and emotional feature. I would have bowed out of the dance, and let the author just do it himself.

Kanon let my imagination go to work. By so doing, he tapped into my potential to make his story stronger. I helped him. And I enjoyed doing it.

Dancing in the dark

Writers must make these decisions in the dark. We don’t know our readers as individuals. But we are, or should be, careful observers of human nature. We’ve even chosen themes and elements in our story that are universal; subjects like ambition, belonging, loyalty and, as in the Kanon novel, loss. Therefore we can have confidence that readers are ready to complete our story by supplying their matching and more powerful impressions. We can give ourselves permission to leave some things out in order to entice the reader to supply it herself, from her rich mind, both conscious and unconscious.

This doesn’t excuse us from getting things on the page and driving home the import of a scene or indeed, the book. Too much implication and our partner is lost. But it is an exquisite interplay to try and get the balance right.

Over the years, this will us as writers to grow, and as we grow and become more and more expert in the dance, there will be pleasure in that, too.

A few other posts on this blog that deal with this topic:

 Show me. On not taking “show don’t tell,” as a rigid rule.

Subtext in dialogue.  When it’s time to stop making sense, and let the unsaid shine through.


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